On Dogs and Body Language: How I Learned to “Speak” Dog

I remember the first time I read a book on dog body language. It was, literally, an epiphany for me --"Holy $!*? Dogs can talk to us!"


For as long as I can remember, dogs have held a special place in my heart. As a rather imaginative child, I remember spending hours pondering what dogs would say to us if only they could talk.

When I began to pursue dog training as a career, my fascination with dogs transcended the social and emotional aspect of our relationships with dogs and took on an academic interest — I devoured every book I could read on the subject of canine. My office currently includes two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covered in books on dog breeds, training, ethology, and body language.

I remember the first time I read a book on canine body language. It was, literally, an epiphany for me –“Holy #@&$! Dogs can talk to us!” They can, and they do all the time. Dogs, however, do not have conversations in human speech — their beautiful, complex language is one of ear flicks, tail wags, shifts in body weight, a wrinkling of the nose, and a quick spark in or hardening of the eye.

The more I learned about canine body language, the more I wanted to learn. Trainers strive to develop what is known in the profession as “1,000-hour eyes,” hours spent, literally, just watching dogs and learning how they communicate with each other and humans.

I’ve spent well more than 1,000 hours at this point watching and learning from dogs, and I still have more to learn. Within canine body language, there are myriad dialects. I often struggle, especially at a distance, to interpret the facial communications of black dogs, specifically. Dogs with docked tails have truncated vocabularies, as do brachycephalic breeds, which may not exhibit the full range of facial expressions seen in their longer-nosed brethren.

Some breeds have hair that speaks so loud it’s hard to hear their communications, such as Olde English Sheepdogs and Pulis. Asian breeds, such as my own beloved Chows, are a bit gruff in their communications — they certainly don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves like a Lab or Golden may. So, I’m still striving for 10,000-hour eyes.

While learning about canine body language has been very exciting, it has an insidious side effect: If you want dogs to talk to you, and you are willing to become educated in their communication systems, you are, in some ways, obligated to listen to them. Sometimes, lots of times, you won’t like what dogs have to say.

This is the nefarious side effect of learning about canine body language — the people who don’t speak it will think you are crazy.

I am fairly active on a number of social networking sites, and on them many of the groups and pages to which I subscribe are, not surprisingly, dog-related. What is surprising, and often discouraging, is how many people who legitimately love dogs can look at the exact same picture I’m viewing and see something totally different.

Take, for example, the picture above. It came up in the first page of returns on a Google image search for “Happy Dogs.” This dog doesn’t look happy to me at all — his eyes are squinted, ears are back and plastered against his head, and lips are pursed. Not surprising, since most dogs actually do not like being patted on the top of their heads but prefer to be lightly touched on the side of their face, or shoulders, or along the chest and chin.

The most frequent offenders in the “dog trainers are going to cringe” category are pictures of dogs with infants, toddlers, or children. Like this one:

Many will look and say, “That dog and baby are adorable! Love the matching headbands!” I see a dog in distress, brow wrinkled in consternation, hoping his owner will say, “Um, he doesn’t look happy, maybe he needs some space from the baby.”

This is the kind of situation that sets kids up for being victims of dog bites, and young children are the population most at risk for dog bites and most at risk for severe injury, maiming, or death should that dog choose to voice his displeasure with his teeth — the one canine communication tool humans are bound to listen to.

Often, even when we can see very visible signs that a dog is terrified, people will post pictures like the one above and laugh, “Hahaha! So funny! My dog cowers the same way when he has to wear his coat,” but fear isn’t funny. The dog above is terrified — if we love dogs, instead of laughing at his discomfort shouldn’t we try to find a way to alleviate it?

So, now I do see life through dog-tinted lenses. Sometimes people say, “Yeesh, Casey, why such a killjoy?” Rest assured, when I comment on a picture like this, it is only because my job carries with it an ethical obligation to help dogs and people understand each other better, to coexist together more joyfully and safely.

This goal can only be achieved once we start letting dogs into the conversation and listening to them, as no healthy relationship ever survives without all parties involved being able to share in the dialogue. To me, there is no greater love for dogs than learning to speak to and respond to their language. Here is a great video to help you to understand some of the basics:

My other favorite resources for learning about dog body language are Doggone Safe and the Liam J. Perk Foundation, both dedicated to dog-bite prevention with a wealth of free online resources for those wanting to learn more. For any dogsters who want to join me in SupremoDogNerd-Land, check out these great books, videos, and e-books on body language from the awesome folks at Dogwise.

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